With the Eighth Symphony of Beethoven, the first half of the Tanglewood BSO concert on August 5 seemed to commence rather abruptly since the symphony does not even begin with an introductory section, but rather gets going almost as emphatically as does the Fifth. The second movement with its repeated woodwind chords is regularly associated with Nepomuk Mälzel, the inventor of the metronome. Elsewhere relentless rhythmic figures are also very much in evidence. Nevertheless, the best performances, and this was one, manage to convey the lilt and wit that Beethoven also intended in perhaps his most genial and bucolic expression in the symphonic idiom.
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, the BSO’s most frequent guest conductor over the last few years, presided over the gemütlich proceedings (perhaps agradables in Spanish) with a technique that was very interesting to watch. At times he kept time with broad deliberate motions, only to appear to stop conducting altogether until important downbeats needed to be telegraphed by large gestures. But perhaps most interesting was how he often subdivided his beat apparently in 16th-note intervals in the allegretto scherzando second movement. The result was an unerring pulse over which lyric expressions alternated with dramatic outbursts. The orchestra responded with great enthusiasm and Beethoven was very well served by this performance.
We had chosen to come to this concert in large part to hear the twenty-four-year-old Chinese pianist, Yuja Wang. She is something of a phenom. Her appearances on YouTube (especially the Chinese site) are legion, and she has the distinction, with 1.6 million hits, of offering the fastest and most accurate performance on YouTube of The Flight of the Bumblebee. That she is also a poet of the keyboard is evidenced by many other examples.
TFotBB, by the way, is a study unto itself on YouTube. I first experienced it under the tutelage of Viennese pianist Till Fellner who had very definite ideas about which performer should receive a gold star. He also found performances by some famous pianists to be lamentably laughable. When we later moved on to a certain famous c-sharp minor prelude, Till remarked, “Life is too short to play Rachmaninov or to drink bad wine.” But Fellner enjoys hearing Rachmaninov and would probably have cheered Yuja Wang’s performance of the romantic master’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
What was most remarkable was how Wang was able to embody the variations with appropriately varied techniques. She did not demand unusually fast tempi overall, though her rapid passagework had velocity and lapidary perfection indeed. In the famous inverted variation (XVIII) she certainly out-romanticized the composer who was, after all, somewhat buttoned down as a performer. In her louder utterances she actually levitated from her bench, bringing the weight of her entire body to bear on the keyboard. The result was a large tone that also had great beauty. When speed alone is relied upon to produce fff dynamics, tone can become harsh; only the combination of weight and velocity can succeed, as it did here. She was abetted by the skillful accompaniment of Frühbeck de Burgos, though one would have preferred if he had called for a bit more restraint from the band at times. The musical joke at the end lost much of its intended effect when the bathetic last notes from the piano were covered by the orchestra.
Richard Strauss described his most beloved opera, Rosenkavalier, as his tribute to Mozart. With a fine orchestra in the pit and undoubted stars on the stage, the effect can almost match the lightness, wit lyricism and emotional understanding of the earlier master. But in the orchestral suite, much of the delicacy is lost. With a large orchestra exposed on the stage instead of lavish sets framing Elizabeth Schwarzkopf or some other beauty, one faces a bombastic Strauss tone poem more than an effervescent-though-knowingly-ironic mirror to human foibles. The orchestral suite is Schlag compared to the opera’s Champagne.
Certainly the suite got the performance it deserved. Frühbeck de Burgos, while unable to find much incredible lightness or subtlety, nevertheless made sure that the audience got its money’s worth. He got the ritardandi and accelerandi in the “Ohne mich” waltz just right and succeeded in setting up all of the instrumental solos with a good ear for balances. The audience loved the rowdy, frenzied conclusion.